Melting pots and marketplaces



Melting pots and marketplaces



JORGE WILHEIM

describes how cities will lead the world through a painful transition





crowded street

It was Shakespeare who asked: 'What are cities but its people?' In considering the future of cities, we are in fact considering the future of humanity.

For a long time urban problems have mainly been associated with cities in the southern hemisphere. The first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, held in Vancouver in 1976, dealt mainly with living conditions in developing countries. But today we are faced with a worldwide phenomenon, with the major cities, in particular, experiencing similar problems wherever they are.

Cities have always been melting pots and marketplaces, the physical sites of social interaction and communication, the places where ideas and products flourish and receive their social and economic value. They are the focus of creativity and culture, where opportunities are offered, creating the preconditions for progress and the firmest foundations for civilization.

Cities, being high density human settlements, generate more noise, pollution, traffic jams and social frictions. They are also centres of information exchange, learning, production, opportunities and freedom of options, plus the enhancement of a richer cultural life.

In cities, economic factors are translated into social facts, for better or worse. Economic policies, their successes and failures, are immediately noticeable in cities. In other words, cities reflect the turmoil of the period that humankind is going through.



Painful transition

We are living through a painful, and sometimes dramatic, period of transition that is affecting the very structure and basis of human society. Transitions throughout history show that people and institutions are afraid of change. When people are uncertain of the future, their first response is to retreat and, through an instinct of self-preservation, to become intolerant and selfish, to defend what they have today because they do not know what they will have tomorrow. This is what is happening as the 20th century draws to its close, and it is much more evident in towns and cities than in rural areas.

Intolerance increases, while nationalism mushrooms; corporate bodies (including labour forces) cling to their privileges; institutions reject any progressive change; solidarity is replaced by suspicion and hatred, by a new wave of urban tribalism, if not by madness and violence.

It is, in fact, society that is violent - but the violence is more obvious in an urban environment. Social problems are more obvious in areas where there is a high population density, and are therefore immediately associated with cities. But this concentration also means a greater concentration of opportunities, a positive aspect that is not sufficiently stressed: indeed, it is rarely mentioned.

The transitional phase that we are now experiencing will involve a change of values, a new 'social contract' and new institutions. It will not simply be a matter of creating a less consumer-oriented society or of challenging competition as the overriding principle, as advocated by the currents of thought centred around sustainable development and the protection of the environment. Other things will also change: the balance between a public social life and the need to preserve a private life; the balance between noise and silence; family values - which have been swept aside in recent decades - will probably be re-established; family structure is changing. Many values will change, leading to the gradual establishment of new ones.

We are directly or indirectly engaged in what the encyclopaedists of the 18th century did; redefine what is significant, fight against prejudice and intolerance, and generously design a better world that will once again have the city as a centre of peace, freedom, justice and solidarity.

I am optimistic because people in cities have lived through difficult times before. In the mid-19th century, for example, the poor lived in appalling conditions in London and New York. Yet society always manages to find a way out. Cities will lead the process, taking humanity through the transitional period which will, unfortunately, show its nastiest face on the urban scene.

I believe that many cities are spear-heading innovations that are already components of a new geopolitical world reality. And - though many authors still resist accepting this - some of the solutions are coming from the South, which is to be home to 19 of the largest 23 megacities of the world. These include the air pollution abatement strategies of Brazil (where about 40 per cent of cars now run on sugar-cane alcohol), interesting cases of land-adjustment in Southeast Asia and the new urban patterns than can be foreseen in China.



crowded street

Decentralization of power

When we prepared the new metropolitan plan for São Paulo - a metropolis of 16 million people that is still growing, if slowly - we had to rethink planning concepts. We amplified the concept of the sustainability of development, introducing strong programmes for the public and for education, reopening the question of 'what is education' in the present transitional global economy. We reconsidered São Paulo's role, taking its global linkages into account. We reassessed its needs for water, opening debate on recycling. And we proposed to decentralize activities: instead of detailed zoning for the activities of the 20 million people expected in the city in the year 2010, we stressed issues of governance that will lead to a formal decentralization of power and will enable the main actors in the city to participate.

Many cities are implementing action through partnerships and various other types of decentralized management. A spontaneous, if not yet coherent, network of cities is moulding an urban transnationalism - and producing quick, although still limited, results. Good experiences are beginning to be replicated - as are innovative urban solutions for transport systems, water access, waste disposal and house provision and planning.

But local authorities cannot solve all the problems of development, even with local partners. Many local initiatives have provided some housing for homeless families. But it is only common sense that housing is not a dramatic issue, so long as access to land is made possible, income and wealth are fairly well distributed, governance and justice are transparent and democratic, and wars, terrorism and natural disasters do not destroy lives, homes and cities. These are national issues: they depend on central government, on justice and on constitutions.

Or consider sanitation and waste. There is no sewage system in Kinshasa. In Kingston, only 18 per cent of the people are connected to the sewers. In Kampala, less than 10 per cent of the population benefits from regular waste collection. In Karachi, only 40 per cent of the solid waste produced by households is collected. Central government and international partners will have to collaborate with local authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) if these huge problems are to be solved.

crowded street Central and local governments will also have to work in partnership on urban transport and the air pollution caused by cars. Some interesting initiatives have been implemented locally, especially in developing country cities. But regulating the motor industry and changing fuels is a major national - indeed, global - issue, that will have to be faced resolutely, despite the various lobbies. We must invest in public transport and make changes in the use of private cars. The new paradigm should be: 'increase the use of the car, instead of the number of cars'. We need to give incentives to research on hydrogen and solar energy for vehicles - and, meanwhile, do more to run vehicles on natural gas, biomass ethanol and electricity. Very little is being done because of the inertia of vested interests and the lack of political will to enter this field. And it would be of utmost importance that each city established a relationship between the number of cars allowed to circulate and the square metres of road lanes available for this traffic.



New role for government

The role played by government is fundamental since it is responsible for deciding urban policies, and these cannot be decided by the market. The message that the Istanbul summit will try to put across is that what is needed is not reducing the role of government but changing it from a 'custodial' one to that of a 'driving force'. It must provide impetus and capacity- building; it is responsible for creating the conditions that enable the population and its organizations to play an active role.

The HABITAT II Conference clearly cannot provide immediate answers to all the urban problems throughout the world. But there are times when asking the right questions is more important than finding solutions. Its main aim is to make people and governments aware of the real scale of the problem.

The United Nations particularly wants to show in Istanbul that there is an alternative line of approach to finding solutions - through a partnership of all those involved and the enabling of citizens and organizations. HABITAT II will be the first United Nations Conference that is officially open to NGOs and city authorities. It is the first officially to include all the partners involved - towns and cities, the private sector, NGOs, the researchers who work 'in the field' and the parliamentarians who make the laws - in the basic organization of the Conference rather than just in fringe meetings. By doing this, we want to set an example of a viable working alternative to existing institutions, with new combinations of players. We are trying to change the very way in which the United Nations Organization operates; after all, it is not called the United Governments Organization.


Jorge Wilheim is Deputy Secretary-General of HABITAT II. A well-known Brazilian architect and town planner, he has been, at different times, the country's Secretary of State for Planning and for the Environment and São Paulo's President of the Planning Department.


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